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Lessons From Ferguson

September 6, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


As I write these words, it is not clear whether the worst rioting is over in Ferguson. But, whatever comes next, there are lessons we have learned from the week of confrontations with the police in the St. Louis suburb.
Above all else, we are learning the importance of the rule of law and due process. If the authorities — everyone from the Ferguson police chief to the governor of Missouri to Eric Holder and Barack Obama — put their sympathies for injustices suffered by African-Americans above the pursuit of truth, we could be looking at an ugly disregard for the rights of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown on the night of August 9. Police officers deserve the presumption of innocence as much as anyone else. That should go without saying.
But it is not the case. Many voices in the crowds confronting the police in Ferguson have shown no concern for Officer Wilson’s rights. They are demanding not a thorough and fair investigation of the shooting, but his conviction. Some chanted proudly that they wanted him “Dead.”
It was not just the demonstrators. Civil rights activists and the liberal commentators on the cable news networks proceeded as if Wilson were guilty of a crime. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called not for an honest and fair investigation of the shooting, but for Wilson’s “prosecution.” Some might argue that was a slip of the tongue, but Nixon was a lawyer and attorney general of Missouri for many years. One would think he would know the importance of using the correct legal language in a situation like this. This was not an off-the-cuff remark. He read it from a teleprompter. His use of the word “prosecution” indicates the pressure being generated by the mob action in the streets of Ferguson.
The primary goal in this crisis cannot be a show of solidarity with the outrage in the black community over Brown’s shooting. The truth matters. There are rumors about this shooting — often deliberately stoked by racial agitators — that have no basis in fact. Even if Darren Wilson turns out to be guilty of a crime, no one is calling for his conviction for murder knows that to be true. Not yet. The facts aren’t in. Lynch mobs are not a creation of Hollywood screen writers. They happen.
We do know some things now from the autopsies: that Brown was not shot in the back — as the loudest voices in the crowd told us was the case; that Brown was not a “gentle giant of a boy” out for a peaceful stroll the night of the shooting. The video of his confrontation with the owner of the convenience store, who tried to stop him from stealing a box of cigars that night, shows Brown to be capable of violence. We know that there are eyewitnesses who corroborate the police account that Brown had attacked and was rushing Officer Wilson when the shooting took place. We know that Wilson was taken to the hospital the night of the shooting, suffering from severe facial injuries, including an eye-socket fracture.
None of this matters to the mobs confronting the police. They are convinced that Brown was gunned down while holding up his hands in surrender. Demonstrators — in other cities, as well as Ferguson — are marching with their hands aloft, chanting, “Don’t shoot me, I surrender,” as if the case is closed and there is no reason to harbor any doubt that Brown was shot while saying the same thing. Spike Lee points to Michael Brown’s shooting as part of an American “war on the black male.”
It is not the point that American blacks are more susceptible to unproven conspiracy theories than whites. There are hundreds of thousands of white Americans who believe that Elvis is alive and that one version or another of Bigfoot is roaming the American countryside. But polls indicate that large numbers of black Americans believe that drugs and HIV were introduced into urban areas to kill off blacks, and that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were killed by government assassins.
Officer Wilson should not be made a scapegoat to appease a new conspiracy theory surrounding his shooting of Michael Brown. A McClatchy-Tribune poll reports, “Roughly three-quarters of blacks said they had ‘not too much’ or ‘no confidence at all’ in the investigations’” of the shooting of Brown. They are convinced that Michael Brown was murdered. They don’t need — or want — an investigation to corroborate that opinion. There is a need for government officials who will stand tall against this rush to judgment. We can only hope this will be a “profiles in courage” moment for Eric Holder and Barack Obama, and not an exercise in partisan politics.
Bad things have been done to American blacks. No one questions that. But the remedy is not the railroading of white police officers.
It is not irrelevant that Al Sharpton is one of the racial agitators feeding the talking points to the demonstrators in Ferguson: The man has been guilty in the past of defaming the character of law enforcement officers when it serves his purposes. Most Americans will have a personal memory of the way he accused without proof Steven Pagones, a New York state prosecutor, of kidnapping and raping Tawana Brawley in 1987. (On July 13, 1998, a jury found Sharpton liable for defamation and awarded Pagones $345,000 in damages.) Pagones was a prop to further Sharpton’s interests; his innocence was irrelevant to Sharpton’s calculations.
Law enforcement authorities and the media need to be on guard to prevent him from doing the same in the shooting of Michael Brown. Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, black or white, Christian, Jew, or atheist — the truth should matter.
A final point, one that I suspect many Americans are thinking but fear to express in public due to concerns for political correctness: Are we watching the early stages of the transformation of Ferguson into an urban wasteland as a result of the pressure being applied to prevent the police from vigorously enforcing the law and arresting looters in the city’s streets? One sign being carried by a demonstrator in Ferguson read, “No Killer Cops in Our Community.”
What if the police take those words to representative a significant segment of community opinion, as a call for a police force with no effective role to play in maintaining peace on the streets, a police force that doesn’t “hassle” anyone? A neighborhood cannot survive if that happens, if its citizens have no confidence that their lives and property will be protected.
When that confidence is lost, law-abiding citizens and merchants leave. The buildings burned to the ground by the rioters do not get rebuilt. It is not the government that sets up convenience stores, laundries, medical offices, beauty parlors, and pizza shops. The burned-out buildings become urban lots filled with debris. It is not a scare tactic to bring up this possibility. Think of Detroit and Trenton.

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